“Liberalism and direct democracy”

“Liberalism and direct democracy”

Press release of the Research Institute Direct Democracy

On 10 October 2015 the Second Scientific Conference of the Research Institute Direct Democracy on the topic of “Liberalism and direct democracy” took place in Zurich. Over 80 participants gathered in the great hall of the “Centre Charlemagne”.
The meeting, aimed at scientists, professionals and an interested public, addressed the theoretical foundations of liberalism and the liberal debates in several panels which often discussed the question of “representative or direct democracy?”.
After a short welcome by the head of the Institute Dr phil René Roca, the representative of the General Secretariat of the Liberal Democratic Party (FDP. The Liberals), Ms Carina Schaller, conveyed the greeting words of her party to the Conference. Then former Federal Councillor Elisa­beth Kopp started the conference and right at the beginning of her speech postulated a comprehensible thesis: Liberalism, linked with the principle of a state based on the rule of law, can only be realised in the long run in a direct democracy. Thus, an exciting starting point was set for the conference.
René Roca presented an introduction into the subject from a historical perspective. He started by presenting the current election platform of the “FDP. The Liberals”, where they claim that direct democracy was also a “liberal achievement”. Roca denied this and justified his thesis by historically reviewing the relationship between liberalism and direct democracy. In the first half of the 19th century, the Liberals had yet opposed direct democracy by any means and preferred a “natural aristocracy” in the framework of representative democracy. After 1848 learning processes could be observed among the Liberals who started to increasingly appreciate the value of direct democracy – not least due to practical experiences at cantonal level. Thus, as Roca explained, both liberalism and direct democracy have become important pillars of modern Switzerland.
In the context of the first panel “Theoretical Foundations of Liberalism” Paul Widmer spoke about two important representatives of the political philosophy of liberalism, Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès and Benjamin Constant. These two were of defining importance for the liberal constitutional thinking in Europe and especially in Switzerland. The lecture put the two liberal thinkers in the centre and focused on the deciding factors of their arguments against direct democracy.
Then Robert Nef asked how compatible classical liberalism was with democracy. On the basis of key sentences, he attempted to answer the question by quoting the important liberal personalities Zaccaria Giacometti and Friedrich August von Hayek. After the Second World War Giacometti succeeded once again to combine both freedom and democracy to form a coherent whole. Von Hayek wrote the concise sentence: “The Swiss institution of the referendum has much contributed to protect them from the worst excesses of the so-called representative democracy.” Words which lead very well to the second panel “Liberal Debates – Representative vs. Direct Democracy”.
The beginning was made by Joseph Jung with his presentation on the relationship between Alfred Escher and direct democracy. Escher as an extraordinary promoter who had advanced the economic and socio-political development of early Switzerland after 1848, could do so – Jung pointed out – only because at that time a small (economic) liberal time frame opened which already closed again in 1872/74. This phase was characterised by the representative and not by direct democracy. Therefore, Jung said, one can argue that the awakening to modern Switzerland was only possible because, not the direct but the representative democracy had prevailed in the early state.
Werner Ort presented another central liberal figure, Heinrich Zschokke who had laid important political foundations for Switzerland. Zschokke was one of the most influential and most eloquent publicists of Switzerland in the first half of the 19th century. He was enlightening the people and at the same time a pioneer of liberal, modern Switzerland. Like Escher, he favoured the representative democracy and was very skeptical towards direct democracy.
Finally, in the context of the topic “Switzerland as a liberal State” Daniel Annen revealed interesting links between the ideas of Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Schiller, Leonhard Ragaz and Meinrad Inglin. Especially Inglin’s work “Schweizerspiegel” is a treasure trove for basic thoughts about the liberal state and Switzerland in the transition from the 19th to the 20th century. With Ragaz, a good bridge could be established to the next year’s Conference which will deal with the topic “Early Socialism and Direct Democracy”.
A stimulating and lively discussion ensued the very interesting and informative presentations.
René Roca, the head of the Institute, concluded the meeting with the announcement that in spring 2016 the conference proceedings of last year’s conference will be published. Their title will be “Catholicism and modern Switzerland. Democracy and Education in the Catholic area” and will start the new scientific series “Contributions to the study of Democracy” at the publishing house Schwabe. The outlined meeting “Liberalism and Direct Democracy” will be volume 2 of the scientific series.     •

Press release of the Research Institute Direct Democracy (see www.fidd.ch) of 20 October 2015

(Translation Currennt Concerns)

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